Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans

An insider’s six-step plan to fix Congress

One need not deny the majority the chance to lead in agenda-shaping (electoral victory, whether by margins large or small, does matter), but before Jim Wright ascended to the speakership, in 1987, most debates, even under the decidedly partisan Tip O’Neill, allowed ample opportunity for dissent and amendment. In recent years, however, to be in the minority is essentially to be made a nonfactor in the legislative process. Leaders of both chambers have embraced the strategy of precluding minority amendments, out of fear that even members of the majority party might vote for them, because they believe either that it is the right thing to do or that it is what the people they represent prefer. Such “closed” rules, preventing members from offering amendments, simply tell citizens their preferences don’t matter.

Speaker John Boehner deserves credit for promising greater opportunities for the minority party to have its amendments considered. Under his speakership, the Republican-dominated House has actually accepted some Democratic amendments. The House now has fewer closed rules and more “modified open” rules (which permit at least some challenges to the leadership’s agenda). But whether the procedure will be open or closed on any particular matter remains at the discretion of the majority leadership, and in cases where the political commitment is particularly strong (for example, on the Republican challenge to health-care legislation passed during Democratic control), the promises of openness have been quickly abandoned. The House should adopt rules guaranteeing that any proposal receiving a significant level of support—say, 100 co-sponsors—would automatically be allowed a committee hearing, an up-or-down vote in committee, and then, even if it fails in committee, a vote on the House floor. Some majority members may abandon the team and vote with their constituents (or their own consciences), but isn’t that what we elect representatives for? And since the rules for House floor debate are determined not by parliamentary procedure but by a Rules Committee constituted anew for each session of Congress, equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats should sit on that committee (as opposed to the current practice of conferring a big advantage on the majority).

Change the leadership structure of congressional committees.

In our current system, in which a small majority may have all the power and a large minority none, the chair of a congressional committee or subcommittee (always a majority-party member) decides whether a proposal will be considered and whose views will be solicited. We should change congressional rules to provide for a chairman from the majority party and a vice chairman from the minority (no such position exists in today’s Congress, except on certain special non-legislating committees); the vice chairman need not ascend to the chairmanship in the chairman’s absence, but each would have the authority to bring a bill forward and to invite expert witnesses to offer testimony. The process might be slower, but consideration of alternatives would be more thorough.

Whichever party holds the majority will resist these changes. Party leaders see committee hearings not as a means to evaluate proposals, but as tools to advance predetermined agendas. The current committee process is transactional, not deliberative. But using committees to bypass true deliberation undercuts the very purpose of a people’s legislature.

Fill committee vacancies by lot.

When I served on the Republican committee that decided other members’ committee assignments, I watched as party leaders sometimes refused to grant a slot to a member who was seen as unlikely to “go along,” or too inclined to exercise independent judgment, or “too nice” to spearhead the combat that had come to characterize committee “deliberations.” I was reminded of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta H.M.S. Pinafore, in which Sir Joseph, a former member of Parliament who has been appointed Lord Admiral of the Queen’s Navy, recalls how he achieved such great success: “I always voted at my party’s call,” he sings, “and I never thought of thinking for myself at all.”

Presented by

Mickey Edwards is a vice president of the Aspen Institute and the author of Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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